Stretching Can Be a Powerful Part of Your Workout — If You Do It Right
When trying to improve pretty much anything through exercise, the focus is typically “faster, stronger, harder, etc.”
While there’s a time and a place for that, it’s not going to do much good if you don’t physically prepare your body to be there and endure the stresses (and eventual gains) of a solid workout.
Regardless if you’re tackling weights, HIIT, cardio or even a simple bike ride, most of us see stretching as a tedious necessity that we often skimp on — and that’s an attitude that needs to change. When done right, stretching isn’t only a great way to warm up and cool down, but it can actually help make you stronger.
A Look at What Makes Stretching So Important
What Stretching Tries to Do
According to Michael Ranfone, Founder of Ranfone Training Systems, stretching is the employment of a force in a targeted muscle group to elicit a response of an increased range of motion. As we stretch, we’re trying to achieve a result that is isometric (where tension is developed without contraction or changing the length of the muscle) and a result that is eccentric (applied tension to a muscle as it lengthens, causing elongation).
In simple terms, the goal is to increase mobility in a safe and measured way, which will ideally lead to stronger muscles and a stronger you.
Benefits of Stretching
Beyond the obvious mobility and flexibility benefits, stretching is a great way to warm up the brain.
“Stretching makes your muscles more flexible by teaching your brain that it’s okay to relax them, resulting in improved flexibility,” says Onyx trainer Mackie Root. “By getting into ‘end ranges,’ or the furthest point we can comfortably go in our stretches, we’re letting the brain know that it’s safe to be here, and the muscles don’t have to be tight or tensed.”
As the brain adapts and changes, so does our ability to move and flex. Introducing even a couple simple stretches each day could help increase that oh-so-important range of motion over time.
Stretching Before and After Workouts — Dynamic vs. Static Stretching
Not all stretching is created equal, and a big part of reaping the benefits of the practice is knowing how and when to implement it.
Oregon-based trainer Chris Curths suggests starting dynamically.
“Dynamic stretching is a style performed by taking the joint through its full range of motion without holding it and best used as a pre-workout warmup as both a means of injury prevention and performance enhancement, especially when combined with self-myofascial release (foam rolling) and vibration,” he says.
Root supports this and notes the potential dangers of static stretching cold muscles (holding one stretch for more than 30 seconds) prior to a workout.
“It’s important to avoid static stretching of cold muscles,” he says. “Imagine a cold, brittle rubber band compared to a warm one. The cold rubber band will be much more likely to snap if stretched.”
Because stretching can pull muscles too much when they’re cold, the act can actually reduce your performance. The best solution is to turn to a series of dynamic, quick movements to help the body warm up and loosen without putting too much stress on your muscles and joints. Once you’re warmed up, you can put the stress back onto your body with less risk for injury.
Post-workout, static stretching is a great way to wind the body down (as long as it’s done while you’re still warm). Find positions that provide a slight stretch on your muscles, but not a sharp pain (an indication of improper form). Hold each stretch for about 20 to 30 seconds, with deep breaths to full deeper into the stretch, and improve range of motion.
The key thing to remember is that stretching is an activity of gradual improvement. A 2008 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study found that a four-week daily stretching regimen led to real improvements in various performance measures of the trial group. Other research supports that the more regular the stretching, the more you stand to benefit.
Best Stretches for Men
While it’s important to recognize that each body needs a different set of stretches, the following are a few options that come recommended:
“I start each day with a strap or stick doing shoulder pass-throughs, which is a great all-around upper body dynamic stretch for the shoulders, upper back, chest, and even wrists. I find it great for relieving tension in the upper back and neck, where so many of us hold our stress.” said Mackie.
“If you’re looking for a stretch, you can never go wrong with one that focuses on your intrinsic foot musculature, plantar fascia or anything surrounding the foot-ankle complex,” adds Michael Ranfone.
Eugene Moore, NASM Personal Trainer at Blink Fitness, also suggests "lunges, torso rotations, and arm circles" for simple, go-to stretches that are easy to do wherever you are.
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